Many recipes include olive oil. Is extra virgin the kind that should always be used? —L.K., Brentwood, Tennessee
From a cooking standpoint, while any olive oil will do, how the oil is being used and your personal taste preference should help you decide which is the right choice for you. Olive oils designated as virgin oil are made from a relatively simple milling process—pressing fresh olives, then collecting and straining the extracted oil without the use of heat or chemicals. An extra virgin oil is the oil that is rendered from the first pressing of the olives. It has an acidity of less than 1%, a characteristic fruity taste and aroma and a greenish golden color. Extra virgin oil is the most expensive olive oil. It takes about 11 pounds of olives to produce 1 quart of extra virgin olive oil. Extra virgin olive oil loses much of its distinctive flavor when heated, so from an economic standpoint it is not the best choice for sauteing or baking. However, its distinct flavor shines in cold dishes, salad dressings or when drizzled on salads or bread. Virgin olive oil has a 2% acidity and less fruity flavor and aroma. Virgin oils are suitable in cooked and cold dishes. Virgin olive oil is a good all-purpose oil, especially if you plan to keep only one type of olive oil on hand.
The other olive oils you’ll find in grocery stores are labeled "pure", "100% olive oil" or "extra light". They are refined oils produced from pressed oil that has then been heat-processed. In the heat process, olive oil loses its characteristic flavor and aroma. Refined olive oil is blended with virgin oil, which provides the olive flavor and adds the yellow color. Refined oils are economical and an excellent choice for frying, sauteing and baking. Their mild flavor allows the dish's other flavor components to come through. From a nutritional point of view, the calorie and fat content of all olive oils is pretty much the same. They tally about 120 calories, 14 grams fat (2 grams saturated fat) and 10 grams monounsaturated fat per tablespoon. Don't be misled by the label "extra light" olive oil. It refers to the mild flavor and very pale color of the oil, not its nutritional content.